Your Ultimate Guide to First Time Travel to Hong Kong
Planning to spend a few days in Hong Kong on a shoestring budget? Yes, it’s possible. For every ultra-expensive hotel room that boasts of panoramic views of the city, there’s a cheap little corner somewhere. It won’t hurt, though, to treat yourself with some of the best the city can offer. What’s important is that you enjoy your first visit.
I have always received questions and requests for assistance from friends and strangers who plan to visit Hong Kong. Most of the inquiries I get are from the Philippines who are first time visitors to Hong Kong. I can imagine it must be very exciting. But at the same time, the feeling uncertainty is also there as many questions arise. Best affordable and accessible guesthouse? Where to eat cheap? Where to find outlet shops? Do the local people speak English?
I am therefore composing my own version of ‘Enjoying Hong Kong on a Shoestring Budget’ in hopes of trying to answer these questions.
Planning your stay
Hong Kong is not a big place to go around compared with New York City, Los Angeles or Tokyo. With signs generally in Chinese and English, Filipino and other travelers even with little map skills should have no problem getting through the city. And while the relative small size of the city comes as a relief for those afraid of getting lost, it’s also a concern that every square feet comes at a premium. Hong Kong’s accommodation is among the most expensive. However, there are cheaper options to the traditional hotel booking — AirBnB (signup and get up to $37 on your booking), guesthouses or short-term bed spacers for the ultra-cheap ones.
Choosing your hotel
Generally hotels are found in Hong Kong island and Kowloon but those in New Territories have began to spring up as demand for hotel rooms have picked up over the years.
- If you plan to visit Hong Kong Disneyland, Ngong Ping 360 or Ocean Park — staying in Kowloon is a safe bet because it’s in between these attractions. For starters, Disneyland and NP360 is closer to the airport so if you only choose these options, staying close to airport — or book a room inside Disneyland — is a good choice. However, there are only a few choices for hotels close to Hong Kong International Airport and likely they’re likely quite pricey as well.
- You don’t have to be too concerned about distance from your hotel and commonly visited attractions within Hong Kong as they are often within an hour’s travel time.
- If you are into city sight seeing and prefer to do walking as a significant way of going around, consider staying at hotels close to the MTR stations. They offer convenience and saves you time but they are also generally more expensive. However, smaller inns and guesthouses that offer low rates, such as Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, are also located close to subway stations.
- It’s understandable to find a cheap accommodation and spend the rest of your allowance on experience (riding the cable car or enjoy harbor views via the ferry) but it pays to be safe in Hong Kong. Do not stay at unlicensed guesthouses. One obvious question one might ask is how to find out if an accommodation is legit or not. Under Office of Licensing Authority, you can verify if the guesthouse is legally operating using its search facility. You can also search for address, district or how many rooms if you have specific requirements.Also, the Home Affairs Department launched the mobile application “Hong Kong Licensed Hotels and Guesthouses” which you can search on App Store or Google Play which may come handy.
A licensed guesthouse should have this logo placed at the entrance or any prominent area of the premises.
One of the most often asked question is about finding a cheap, clean, accessible and secure place to stay in Hong Kong. Guest houses, hostels, hotels, boarding houses, whatever. Filipino tourists are often fine with smaller (and therefore, cheaper) accommodations as long as the other aspects of the trip like shopping and sightseeing are not compromised.
How to judge hotels and accommodations
Just because they are licensed means they are suitable for all types of travelers. For backpackers sometimes no hotel bookings are made before they arrive in Hong Kong. So what happens is that they may have a list of guest houses to visit and evaluate before settling in during their stay in the city. Rory Boland at About.com has very good tips on booking for these facilities. Among them are the following:
- See the room. Have a feel of the location. Does it answer your question: is it safe? is it clean? can I sleep at night?
- Check the pipes in the toilet. Is the heater working properly? For winter months this is essential.
- During hot summer nights, check the air con unit. Does it work? Does it emit clean air or in bad shape that needs thorough cleanup?
There are so many hotels and guesthouses in Hong Kong, ranging from claustrophobic squeezed “sardines” layout to spacious, luxury rooms with harbor views. The difference of course is the price. And if we’re talking about budgets, premium accommodation often does not come into the equation. So here are some of the cheaper options you can consider. Each of them are close to major transport links and shopping venues.
Most of the cheapest hotel accommodations are found in Tsim Sha Tsui area which is quite accessible to Mong Kok’s night market, Avenue of the Stars and Symphony of Lights plus several museums and a well-connected public transport system.
I have seen many signs that say “Boarding Houses: For short stay visits or tourists”. I think some of these are typically boarding houses, places where stay-out domestic helpers (yes, some of them don’t stay in their employers houses because they have no more space or want more privacy at night time). So to make more money, and avoid wasting an unoccupied bedroom some owners/tenants sublet these rooms. These are probably the cheapest way to stay in Hong Kong. However, I am aware that Hong Kong has laws forbidding residential buildings or unregistered premises to be used as lodging houses.
Nothing against these folks, because I think most of them are friendly. But the concern I have is that it’s possible that authorities could raid the premises while you’re there sleeping. Would you wake up at 2am, wandering half-asleep in the street, hoping to find a reasonably priced (no longer likely) accommodation? Also, I’ve heard cases about losing valuables in the luggage while guests are outdoors. So in short, I am leaning towards a no to these boarding houses, to play safe.
Visa, Arrival in Hong Kong and Directions
- Philippine passport holders have 14 days visa free entry in Hong Kong. This means that you only need your passport and air ticket to Hong Kong. However, if you plan to stay here longer than 14 days, you need a visa. I guess given 14 days in the city, you’d probably conquer every tourist attraction, take every ride in the amusement park or tasted every single food recommended by friends. For citizens of other countries, please refer to this HK government site.
- Processing at the Immigration should be pretty straightforward. But sometimes Immigration officers ask simple questions like your purpose of visit, length of stay or even ask how much pocket money you brought. That’s their prerogative. As long as you don’t bring prohibited items (very large amount of money, dangerous drugs, pirated materials) there is no need to worry. If you are a bit worried, don’t show it in your facial expression as it might trigger suspicion from the immigration officer.
- Hong Kong airport is huge. But you should not be scared of getting lost. Signs pointing to various directions can be found everywhere. So after you leave the immigration counter, you should find yourself walking towards the arrival hall. Check the signs and you’ll be heading to your destination (Airport Express, bus terminal, washroom or elevator) soon.
- Unless you are in a hurry for an appointment, which I think is not likely for a tourist, there’s no need to take the Airport Express. The reason is that while it brings you from airport to the Central Business District in no time (actually 24 minutes), it is bloody expensive at HK$110 one way using Octopus card or HK$115. using Smart Ticket (hey, it’s not smart when you pay more!). For updated fares, please refer to this page.You’ll also miss the glimpse of a better view of a couple of majestic bridges, huge container port and residential buildings along the way.Those who wish to take the Airport Express can avail of heavily discounted online offer at Klook.com. For example, you only pay HK$72 instead of HK$115 for a trip from airport to Central Station (or vice versa). Instead of being issued ticket, you will get a special code which can be accessed via your mobile phone and pass through special lanes upon entrance or exit.
- It is advisable to get an Octopus card before leaving the airport. This card is a prepaid card loaded with cash value and used to pay a number of merchants, but primarily used to pay for transport rides. A counter can be found at the arrival hall. One Octopus card costs HK$150 with HK$100 value and HK$50 card deposit. You can use this card to pay the bus or subway (not the taxi), parking meters, McDonald’s meals, and a few others. You can reload Octopus card value at MTR stations or convenience stores such as Circle K or 7-Eleven outlets. And when your journey in Hong Kong is over, you can always get back the HK$50 deposit (minus HK$7 handling fee if you used your card for less than three months).
- If you only have your back pack or a small luggage with you, a cheap way to reach the city is to take the S1 route bus from the airport to Tung Chung MTR station and costs HK$3.5 to ride this bus. Upon arriving at Tung Chung MTR station, take the train towards Hong Kong station. You wouldn’t miss it; it’s the only outbound trip from Tung Chung station. Please note that if you arrive in Hong Kong past 1am, you better change plans — take the taxi/Uber or night bus — as the MTR subway service is already done for the day.
- If you have your backpack plus luggage, taking the Airport bus is a good option especially if your hotel is close to the bus stop. A bus ride cost ranges between HK$20 to HK$45 one way, depending on the distance from the airport. Fare from the airport to Hong Kong island costs more than to Kowloon. These buses are custom-fit with upholstered seats to simulate (or at least try to look the same way as) flying an airplane. These buses can easily be found outside the Hong Kong International Airport premises. There are also cheaper buses plying from the airport with prefixes E (examples: E21 and E11). These buses take longer time to reach their destinations because they have more bus stops and are also aimed at accommodating airport workers.Complete list of buses from/to Hong Kong airport
- Taxis and vans are also found in the area but I think for budget tourists, these are not necessary. In case the need arises, you can find taxi queues near the parking lot. Sometimes taxis can be more practical especially if you are a party of four or five (Hong Kong taxis have 4 or 5 passenger capacity) and carry several luggage (taxi drivers charge for each bag). Compute how much it costs to take the bus times the number of passengers vs estimated taxi fare.
- Uber operates in Hong Kong so it is possible to make a booking as you arrive at the airport. You’ll just need to be at specific area:From Arrivals Hall A, turn left after exiting the terminal and proceed to the Regal Airport Hotel Car Park. From Arrivals Hall B, turn right as you exit the terminal and continue to Car Park 1.
Internet and Wifi access
- Hong Kong International Airport is equipped with free wifi connectivity with indefinite access so simply enable your smartphone to avail of the free service.
- It is possible to buy data plans for short term visits. At the arrival hall you will find CSL and China Mobile shops where you can purchase prepaid data plan.
- Hong Kong has plenty of facilities that offer wifi connections. Among them are public libraries, parks, shopping malls and even the airport bus.
Communicating with Hong Kong locals
Negotiating for a venue to spend the night and rest may not be your first foray of talking to locals who may not be well versed with English, but certainly this is one of the most challenging one. Here are some tips when speaking to them.
* There is no need to be fluent in talking in English
* Speak slowly
* Use simple English terms
* Follow up with action if words can’t explain
* Useful Cantonese phrases:
- ngóh m̀sìk góng gwóngdùngwá (I don’t speak Cantonese)
- m̀gòi (excuse me)
- jou san (good morning),
- Nīgo géidō chín a? (how much is this?)
- sáisáugāan hai bīndouh a? (where is the toilet?)
Honestly, as a tourist you don’t have to really learn the Cantonese language, many locals understand and speak English well.
- Assuming you had a good night sleep or spent late night settling in, you ought to wake up at 8:30am, have shower and have breakfast at 9. Some guest houses offer them, but if they don’t, cheap eats are numerous in the morning. Yoshinoya, KFC, Cafe de Coral, McDonald’s and Fairwood have breakfast menu items that cost cheaper than lunch or dinner.
- If you prefer more Chinese menu with some Western flair, then you can visit Cafe de Coral. If you crave for rice in the morning, Yoshinoya has chicken and beef rice options. A typical breakfast may consist of toasted bread, fried noodles, milk tea or coffee, pancake, roast pork or sandwich. It’s good to try local food, although I won’t blame others for sticking with their usual meals especially those who can’t tolerate eating new types of food.
- Lunch or dinner menus are slightly different but you’ll have more to choose from. Chinese restaurants have Chinese menu and may have difficulty in talking in English. (See “Talking to Locals” above).
- The local char siu pao is the same as our siopao back in the Philippines.
Touring the city
Depending on your preferences, there are numerous permutations on where to go in Hong Kong. If you’re into nature, shopping, sightseeing, food trip, the list goes on. But for those who don’t have anything in preference, here’s my take:
It’s best to visit Hong Kong Disneyland on a weekday, presumably as weekends and holidays allow locals (working parents and school children). HKDL opens at 10:30am so being there just in time before it opens its gates. (Don’t bring lunch box; it is not allowed inside Park premises.) Since it’s located near the airport and quite a distance from Causeway Bay and North Point (about 45 minutes), Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok (about 30 minutes) it would be good to use an hour for travel allowance. It’s best to spend the whole day there to make the, from gate opening to the fireworks display (suspended until 2019).
At the end of the day, folks may be tired from the exhausting trip to fantasyland photo taking and rides. But if spare energy is still available, a trip to Mong Kok or Temple Street’s night market is good after dinner. It’s time to buy presents and souvenir items.
After breakfast, a stroll at Wan Chai’s Bauhinia Square / Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and witnessing tai chi is a good way to start the day. Then head to Ocean Park which now is being served by an MTR station.
You can leave Ocean Park by 5pm. Go towards Pacific Place and at the bridge connecting Pacific Place and Queensway Plaza you’ll find a Hongkong Tramways stop. Take the tram that says “Western Market”, “Shek Tong Tsui”, “Whitty Street Depot” or “Kennedy Town” to go to Central. Fixed payment of HK$2.30 is made by the time you alight the tram. You may alight three or four stops later, and view the iconic HSBC building, ifc 2, Cheung Kong, and Bank of China Tower.
You can walk towards Lan Kwai Fong (just ask anyone and they’ll point the direction). Dining may be expensive in the area but if budget allows, it’s worth a try. It’s not only the food you’re paying for; you’re also paying the ambiance as you witness how Hong Kong transforms from business daytime to relaxing night time.
Go to the Mid-Levels escalator, a long link of escalators that connect Central and its SOHO neighborhood. Along the way you can find fine dining restaurants, fastfood outlets, shops that sell wines, books, wedding accessories and more.
You may then go to bus terminal at Exchange Square (near ifc mall) and go to Stanley Market and Repulse Bay beach in the south. Return trips often pass by Queens Road East in Wan Chai and Admiralty’s Pacific Place. You may then proceed to The Peak at Garden Road. To reach there, take the escalator inside Pacific Place that leads to Island Shangri-La. Continue your ascent until you reach Hong Kong Park. Along the way you can drop by the aviary nearby or visit Hong Kong’s East Asian Games showroom if time permits. The Peak Tram terminal should be within the vicinity.
A visit to The Peak is ideal on a clear day, preferably around sunset. You don’t have to stay too long there, except if you want to visit Madam Tussauds or have dinner but remember this article is an itinerary for budget travelers. You may want to take the bus 15 going to Central instead of returning to your Peak Tram ride. (Cost for going up and down is almost the same.) It allows you to experience how buses travel near the edge of ravines in a winding road. Should you decide to take this bus ride, alight at very last bus stop which is located at the Ferry Terminals in Central.
Take the Star Ferry going to Tsim Sha Tsui. Hopefully it’s around 7pm when you take this one. Upon landing into TST, go directly to Avenue of the Stars and take photos. By 7:30pm go to the viewing deck area, find a comfortable seat and witness why Victoria Harbour’s skyline is one of the world’s best.
By 8:00pm, the Symphony of Lights should start. This is actually a synchronized display of dancing lights emanating from various points across buildings in Hong Kong island as well as in Kowloon. This display lasts for several minutes. Don’t miss this one.
Take your dinner and call it a day.
Explore the malls that offer best deals in town. I guess this one is reserved at the last day of your visit, as you collect the savings of the first few days.
* Go to Esprit Outlets in Tsim Sha Tsui
* Go to a Citygate Outlets in Tung Chung. If you decide to leave Disneyland early in Day 1, this is just close by so you should drop by.
That’s how I would like to plan a brief stay in Hong Kong for first time visitors on shoestring budget. As always, just contact me if you have further questions.
Translation help: Omniglot.com